Stockbroker Jim Jacoby never dreamed he’d one day be storing 1,400 disrobed Barbie dolls, skewered like corncobs on dozens of plywood platforms, at Newcastle Mini Storage near his home east of Sacramento, CA. Or become known as Dr. Pyro. Or spend Labor Day in an unforgiving environment far more suitable to Mattel than man.
That all changed in 1999 with his first visit to Burning Man, a one-of-a-kind festival that through sheer audacity manages to recruit a worldwide crowd of 65,000-plus to erect a freeform temporary city in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, just to see how much fun they can have without running water and pizza delivery.
Storing Costumes and Cars
“Burners” like Jacoby prepare their creative props, decorate their fantasy-fueled “art cars” and generally brace themselves weeks in advance for the outrageous art installations, transparent costumes, pageantry and general weirdness, all of which culminates with the ritual burning of a gigantic humanoid that gives this crazy Camelot its name.
Jacoby’s vision has since grown into Barbie Death Camp & Wine Bistro, a lively R-rated village of 260 burners in RVs, trailers, yurts and tents with marching Barbies as its centerpiece and a piano to promote a lounge vibe. (And no, Jacoby’s no sadist; he got the death-camp idea when he stepped on a daughter’s Barbies while engrossed in a “National Lampoon” cartoon that depicted the Pillsbury Doughboy being marshaled into a microwave. Call it burner humor.)
When the burn is over, he and his fellow Barbie-arians schlep the piano, four sofas, water barrels, generators and doll army back to Newcastle Mini Storage for another year. Jacoby stores near his home rather than the popular Nevada facilities in Fallon, Fernley or Reno so he can clean and prepare the Barbie corps on the weekends leading up to the next burn. For an annual rent of $1,300, it’s cheaper than replacing the gear.
“A lot of people in our village store their camping equipment and stuff in Fernley,” he said. “There’s no reason you would carry that back to Florida or the East Coast when you can just rent a unit and split it with three or four other people.”
Business Is on Fire
Sheila (who didn’t want her last name published), the resident manager of PSP Mini-Storage in Fernley, used social media to build her burner business.
“When I first started five years ago, we had maybe 10 and we now have 70 burners out of 533 units,” she said. “We’ve been averaging about 20 new burner tenants a year.”
Burners will start drifting in during July to clean their gear pre-burn, then return to pack it off to the desert.
“It gets crazy for us. We give them 24-hour access the week before and the week after Burning Man to accommodate crazy schedules because we have tenants storing with us from other countries and they arrive at all hours,” Sheila said. “When it’s over, they’re usually very tired so they just drop and run.”
How are burners as tenants?
“Excellent—some of the best,” Sheila said. “They’re all ages and backgrounds, from young adults to anywhere up to their 60s. They know what they want, they know what they’re doing—and they’re usually prepaid.”
While burners tend to favor Fernley and Fallon locations south of the desert for ease of access to the Interstate 80 corridor linking Reno, NV, Sacramento and San Francisco, CA, there are closer storage options in Empire and Gerlach, NV, the festival’s gateway towns.
At first blush, the growing presence of industrial shipping containers—giant tin cans of sorts—in the desert would seem to run counter to both the general merriment and the leave-no-trace cleanup philosophy of Burning Man.
But Travis Lekas, operations director at the Sparks, NV-based Quick Space mobile container rental company, said containers have been a natural fit as portable administrative and medical space at the festival for seven years. Lekas said the fact that the containers are repurposed is a selling point.
“There’s no carbon footprint from any of it. Nothing,” he said.
Three years ago, Quick Space adapted five of its 8×20 containers into “burner bungalows” by adding windows, doors, studded walls, drywall, insulation, an air conditioner and an electrical outlet. For an extra $300, you can paint the exterior; $200, the interior. Burners can buy a bungalow for $3,745 or simply rent it post-burn for storage the rest of the year for $750. Either way, delivery and pickup to and from Burning Man is included.
“We’re less expensive than putting stuff into storage, where the average price around here is $100 a month,” Lekas said. “The rental part alone almost pays for itself.”
Burners have quickly taken to the bungalows. Last year, Quick Space rented 40; this year, it has reservations for 50.
“Our goal every year is to increase the burner bungalows by 500 percent, and we think we’re on track for that,” Lekas said.
Bungalows that aren’t rented annually are easily converted for everyday duty at construction sites and special events. Lekas said he’s frequently baffled by their post-burn contents.
“You look at a few items and say, ‘How did they use that?’ or ‘I wonder what that was for?’” he said. “There’s just no telling with the burners.”